The unveiling of a blue plaque for young war hero Reginald Earnshaw comes as his hometown puts greater focus on honouring significant people and places. Laura Reid reports.
“Reginald EARNSHAW”, bears a new blue plaque erected on the front of the pub that Britain’s youngest serving Second World War casualty once called his home.
Its recent unveiling was concluded with a lament by a lone piper - a poignant tribute in a ceremony that recognised and commemorated Reggie’s courage and a tribute that was also befitting for an occasion which saw the war hero become the first - and sole - recipient of a blue plaque in Ossett, the town where he spent his early years.
It is hoped, though, that Reggie will not be alone with that honour for long. His acknowledgement in Ossett comes at a time of somewhat of a blue plaque revolution in the West Yorkshire community, which for more than two decades has lagged behind nearby Wakefield in such formal recognition for people and buildings of significance.
Further plaques to honour Ossett Town Hall and philanthropist Hannah Pickard are now also in the pipeline and two months ago, a pair of local historians launched a virtual, online scheme to commemorate others of historical interest.
For Stephen Whyte, the current landlord of the pub where Reggie once lived, a blue plaque seemed a fitting tribute for the young man, who lied about his age in his determination to help the war effort and at just 14-years-old paid the ultimate sacrifice.
“His story is part of Ossett’s fabric,” Whyte says. “Somebody who actually lived here committed himself to the war and to fighting for his country at just 14. It’s important those stories are kept alive for future generations.”
Born in Moorlands Maternity Home in Dewsbury in 1927, Reggie lived in what was then The Millers Arms pub until the age of five. Come February 1941, and then living in Edinburgh after a period in Dewsbury, he joined the Merchant Navy, claiming he was 15.
He served for just five months before his ship was attacked by bombers, killing six men, including cabin boy Reggie, who, in 2010, was declared the youngest-known British service casualty of the conflict.
Whyte was told of the story by local historian Alan Howe, who has carried out recent research on Reggie’s life, particularly in West Yorkshire, with the help of his descendants. He learnt too from a Yorkshire Post article, published at the same time, on plans to engrave Reggie’s name on the Ossett War Memorial, to sit alongside those of another 408 men and women from the town who died in service during the first and second world wars.
“I was absolutely mesmerised,” says Whyte, who runs what is now The Brewers Pride. “I have run pubs for 35 years and there is always a story to tell but this one seems extraordinary. To think he has lived in this pub is amazing.”
Whyte met with local historians and the suggestion for a blue plaque for Reggie, whose relatives were among a crowd of people that attended the unveiling, was raised. “For a town the size of Ossett, it seemed pretty poor that there wasn’t a blue plaque,” Whyte says. “We were so positive about associating this pub with Reggie. We were in awe of this young man committing himself to fight in the war for his country.”
Reggie’s courage has also seen him recognised through the Ossett Virtual Blue Plaque project. The scheme, which was first conceived several years ago but launched earlier this year, is the brainchild of Howe and fellow local historian Stephen Wilson, who both felt Ossett was missing an important opportunity by not having blue plaques.
The pair sounded local interest through the historically-focused Ossett Through The Ages (OTTA) Facebook page and people put forward suggestions for buildings of historical interest and people of repute who have contributed to Ossett through their achievements or altruism.
“Ossett had no blue plaques despite its history,” says Wilson, who is from the town but now lives in Wetherby. “People are still coming to the town, it’s vibrant, it’s popular and a lot of people aren’t aware of the background of why Ossett is what it is.”
“This is a virtual blue plaque scheme, not a real one,” he adds, “but we decided it would be a good way to try to highlight the people and places we thought deserved recognition in the form of a blue plaque. And it’s done that. The response has been great.”
After the researching and writing of biographies, the first recipients were listed on Wilson’s Ossett.net history website, accompanied by a virtual blue plaque and background information about why the person or building is deserving. Among those honoured so far are Ossett Holy Trinity Church, Ossett Palladium Cinema and Goring House, once the home of author Stan Barstow.
Though more are in development - there are plans to recognise the Red Lion pub, Gawthorpe Maypole and Philip Mickman, who became the youngest person to swim the channel in 1949, among others - Howe says the virtual scheme was “always intended to be a means to an end”. It was hoped it would fire the imagination of the community and increase enthusiasm for a real Ossett blue plaque scheme.
“We are under no illusion that this is but a beginning and that there are very real challenges ahead if some of the candidates are to move from the virtual to the reality,” he says.
“Not least is the issue that if that move is made then each of the candidates would need to be nominated, sponsored and funded, one way or another, by the nominee.”
Still, the prospect of more physical blue plaques, to join Reggie’s, is a very real one. OTTA founder Anne-Marie Fawcett has been spearheading work to have Hannah Pickard recognised in the same way and a privately-funded plaque for the philanthropist, who in her will made bequests, totalling the equivalent of around £4m in today’s money, to support charities, good causes and institutions in Ossett and the West Riding, will be installed at her former home in the town.
Meanwhile, Ossett Civic Trust is planning to launch its first blue plaque, for the Grade II-Listed Ossett Town Hall, by the end of 2019 and hopes, each year, to install one or two more.
Secretary Caron Ryalls, who has been a member for 15 years, says the group has been in talks about having a “visual, tangible, commemorative item to honour people and historic buildings” for several years and given the group’s healthy membership and the interest sparked in local history from Ossett’s first and second world war commemorations, she says the time now felt right.
The trust has decided on and funded the town hall plaque r the town hall but says it wants people to come forward with suggestions for future honours.
“That’s the beauty of a blue plaque scheme is that it is not just a group that decides where the blue plaques will go, it’s about engagement with their community and getting people involved in it," Ryalls says.
She says the trust is planning to establish a subcommittee to consider nominations. “Ossett Civic Trust isn’t in a position to fund all the blue plaques ourselves as a relatively small community group,” she says. “But we could certainly work with people to look at funding opportunities for the plaques and basically act as a facilitator.”
“Hopefully it will inspire more people to get involved in the historical fabric and background to Ossett especially children," she adds. “It’s nice for them to have something tangible to look at and talk about. It’s a new initiative that we hope will be successful. It’s something else to bring the community together behind.”